THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

129 posts categorized "Greek"

14 July 2020

Spreading the word: a tribute to ancient teachers

Add comment

The Greek and Latin papyri, ostraca and tablets of the British Library provide incomparably rich sources for learning about ordinary people, whose lives and words remained otherwise unrecorded for many centuries. One of the most intriguing perspectives these sources reveal is on families and children. We have recently published an article surveying documents that illustrate aspects of the lives of children in Egypt between the 3rd century BC and 6th century AD, from their infancy and early school years to their marriage and first jobs.

An especially well-documented phase of the life of children is their schooling from primary to secondary or higher education. There is another aspect of school documents, however, which is just as important and fascinating as that of the children – the teachers.

Manuscript illumination of Alexander the Great in school instructed by his teacher Aristotle
Alexander the Great in school instructed by his teacher Aristotle, from a 15th century copy of the French Alexander Romance (France, c. 1420), Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 10v (detail)

Notes, methods and even names of teachers survive in surprisingly large numbers in our collection of papyri and writing tablets. These give us intriguing details about how the foundations of literacy and numeracy were laid down thousands of years ago.

The first stage was learning to read. The way to achieve this was simple but not very easy. Similar to modern-day school education, children were first taught to recognise syllables and read them one by one to form the words. The difference between current and ancient practice, however, was that in ancient schools the texts used for this purpose were not easy reads as nowadays, but samples taken from classical authors.

Back of a wooden tablet preserving five lines from Homer’s Iliad
Back of a wooden tablet preserving five lines from Homer’s Iliad (Book 3, lines 273-277) with syllable marks above the lines (Egypt, 3rd century), Add MS 33293 verso

Written with black ink on a whitened board, this 1800-year-old wooden tablet contains 5 lines from Book 3 of Homer’s Iliad copied in the neat hand of a teacher. Compared to the economic layout of texts in contemporary manuscripts where there were usually no spaces left between the words, on this tablet Homer’s words are neatly divided to make it easier to read. Moreover, the teacher placed strokes above the lines to mark the end of the syllables in each word. This practice, unknown in manuscripts designed for advanced readers, shows that the board was probably used to teach children to recognise and read in syllables.

The larger size of the wooden board – about the same as our A4 instead of the more standard A5 format of waxed school tablets – suggests that it was used for demonstration purposes. It may have served either as a blackboard in a classroom or a sample circulated in class. It is not hard to imagine the children holding and studying it, trying to decipher and read out the lines from Homer’s Iliad, ‘Sun, who be-hold-est all things and hear-est all’ (Iliad iii, 276).

Psalms 12-15 on a fragment from a papyrus roll
Psalms 12-15 on a fragment from a papyrus roll (Egypt, 3rd century), Papyrus 230 recto

Another, slightly different, reading exercise survives on a late 3rd-century papyrus roll that contains the text of Psalms 12-15. The layout of the text on the papyrus is the same as it would be in a standard manuscript with the text arranged in two columns with no space left between the words.

However, the large, circle-shaped marks above the lines, neatly arranged over each of the syllables of the words, suggest that the papyrus roll was also used in school education. It may have been designed for more advanced readers who no longer needed spaces between the words but who would still need some help to recognise syllables to ease reading of the rather complicated text of the Psalms.

Detail of Psalm 13:3 on a papyrus fragment
Psalm 13: 3, ‘the way of peace they have not known: there is no fear of God before their eyes’, with syllable marks above the letters (Egypt, 3rd century) Papyrus 230 verso

Interestingly, the other side of the roll contains a classical text from the 4th-century BC rhetorician Isocrates, which has also been supplied with syllable marks. This shows how classical ‘pagan’ and Judaeo-Christian texts were used together in primary education of the late 3rd to early 4th century.

An ancient wax tablet showing the handwriting of a teacher and pupil
Teacher’s handwriting in the first two lines of a wax tablet followed by the pupil’s copy of the same (Egypt, 2nd century) Add MS 34186 (1)

Another 2nd-century document shows how writing was taught in ancient schools. This little wax tablet, consisting of two parts to be folded up as a booklet, was a star item of the British Library’s recent exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark. Scratched in the upper part of the waxed surface are two lines of a maxim, ‘Accept advice from someone wise / it is not right to believe every friend of yours’, in the beautifully tidy hand of a teacher. The pupil copied it out below, with mistakes and irregularities that are detailed in a separate article.

Wax tablets were perfect for use in schools. Writing in wax was easy to correct because you could erase the words by smoothing the wax with the other end of the stylus. Additionally, the child could place their stylus in the teacher’s deeply scratched lines and follow the letter shapes to learn how to imitate the script. The tablet shows very clearly how the individual hand of a teacher could influence the handwriting of generations in the future.

First part of a set of 8 wooden tablets preserving a teacher’s notebook
First part of a set of 8 wooden tablets preserving a teacher’s notebook with the teacher’s name, 'Epaphroditos', in the upper left corner, followed by columns of phrasal verbs (Egypt, 3rd century), Add MS 37533 (1)r

In addition to actual teaching aids used in class, there are unique survivals of teachers’ private notes. This set of eight little wooden tablets from about 1800 years ago preserves the handy notebook of a teacher who put his name, 'Epaphroditos', on the first tablet to mark his possession. The eight wooden boards would have been fastened together by cords passed through two holes in one of the longer sides of each of the tablets. Each side of the eight boards was neatly numbered on the left to facilitate orientation.

Teachers notes on part 4 of a set of wooden tablets
Teachers notes on part 4 of a set of wooden tablets, in three columns, first two with explanations of the alphabet, third with a set of riddles in questions (Egypt, 3rd century), Add MS 37533 (4)r

The texts are recorded in the rapid and practised cursive hand of a teacher, neatly organised into units for teaching probably at an elementary school. The left-hand side of page 8, for example, shows the letters of the alphabet with notes placed next to each clarifying whether the letter is a vowel (long or short or both), or a simple (such as K) or compound (such as X) consonant. On the right-hand side there is a list of short riddles in the form of questions and answers such as ‘what makes life sweet – happiness’. These may have been used as writing samples for wax-tablet homework-books like the one above.

The unique collections of papyri and tablets in the British Library show not only the labour of the children learning to read and write but also pay tribute to the generations of teachers, whose tireless educational work ensured that classical and Christian Greek and Latin texts came down to us.

You can find out more about the lives and education of children in Egypt between the 3rd century BC and 6th century AD in our article on the Greek webspace.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

18 June 2020

A load of rubbish

Add comment

We think we can write on anything: notebooks, phones, touchscreens, walls, blackboards or occasionally even our own hand. But using rubbish from the bin probably sounds a bit much.

In the classical and late antique world this was different. In times when purchasing a sheet of papyrus or parchment was a considerable investment, people had to make alternative arrangements. This is how rubbish started to be recycled for writing.

Evangelist portrait of St Luke writing on an exquisite papyrus roll
Writing on an exquisite papyrus roll from a 10th-century portrait of the Evangelist Luke, 10th century, Constantinople. Add MS 28815, f. 162v (detail)

Ancient rubbish heaps were especially rich in broken pottery dishes. Vases, cups, jars and all kinds of home pottery utensils were widely used and broken all over the ancient Mediterranean. From the early 5th century BC, their sherds were already reused for writing.

In ancient Athens, fragments of painted pottery vases were used to record names of individuals whom the Athenians wanted to send into exile. Names of the unwanted were scratched on pieces of pottery – called ostraca in Greek. Those whose names featured on the most ostraca were then exiled – 'ostracised' – for 10 years from the city.

Piece of a dark pottery dish inscribed with the name of Pericles
Piece of a dark pottery dish inscribed with the name of Pericles (“Pericles son of Xanthippus”) submitted as a vote to exile him from Athens. Mid-5th century BC, Athens. Athens, Agora Museum P 16755

Over the next centuries as reuse of pottery waste spread across the Mediterranean, the function of ostraca changed. In Egypt, the shape and material of pottery were different. In contrast to the slim Greek dishes, painted shiny and dark, in which inscriptions had to be incised, Egyptian pottery was light or reddish colour with a grainy surface, which could easily be inscribed with just pen and ink.

The benefits of this cheap and accessible writing surface were soon recognised. From the 4th century BC, an ever-growing number of documents in both Greek and Egyptian were recorded on pieces of this reused rubbish, mainly by the fiscal administration of Egypt.

One of the earliest Greek ostraca in the British Library shows this new use of pottery waste by the local authorities. It preserves an ancient fishing permit issued to a certain Pamyt, who duly paid two drachmas for it in 255 BC. This piece from a light-coloured Egyptian dish foreshadows the basic function of ostraca for the next almost 1000 years: to record receipts of tax or other payments. These were short and ephemeral documents, which were needed only for a limited period of time.

Fragment of a light-coloured dish preserving a receipt for fishing tax
Fragment of a light-coloured dish preserving a receipt for fishing tax, issued by the tax collector Protogenes to Pamyt. Thebes (Egypt), 255 BC, Ostracon 12634

Another much later fragment shows that these receipts on ostraca can be much more revealing than one may probably think. This piece of a reddish pottery vase, for example, was reused to record payment for a very specific tax. 1910 years ago, it was issued to a sex-worker called Thinabdella as a proof that she had paid for her work permit 'to have sex with whomever she wishes in the city of Elephantine on the day indicated below'.

Fragment of a red pottery dish containing a tax receipt for a sex worked
Fragment of a red pottery dish containing receipt for working tax, issued by Pelaias and Socration to the sex-worker Thinabdella. Elephantine (Egypt), 7 October 110 AD, Ostracon 13993

Following the official example set by the authorities, the practice of writing on rubbish spread to private households too. This ostracon, which was probably the bottom of an ancient pottery cup, was reused by someone as a memo to record an important date in 369 AD.

Fragment from a pottery cup reused to record a date
Fragment from a pottery cup reused to record a date. Elephantine (Egypt), 369 AD, Ostracon 14064

The use of recycled household rubbish for writing even extended to food waste, mainly animal bones. This leftover of a meal from about 1800 years ago bears a list of individuals' names and addresses, probably for taxation reasons. Whether these bones were used and archived in a similar way to the pottery fragments is not certain but it is hard to imagine using these as evidence of payment. It is more likely that they served as drafts for the final version of a document.

Shoulder blade of a cow reused to record a list of names
Shoulder blade of a cow (?) reused to record a list of names, Egypt, 2nd century AD, Ostracon 50156

This use of recycled rubbish for making first drafts or sketches is reflected in a rare example of an illustrated ostracon. This piece of a brownish vase was reused to practise drawing an ornamented endpiece for a manuscript on papyrus or parchment. The text in the centre of a decorative panel, announcing 'here is the end' (ⲧⲉⲗⲟⲥ ⲉⲭⲉⲓ), sounds very similar to closing formulae of manuscript books. See this article on the Greek Manuscripts webspace to discover what ancient books looked like.

Fragment of a red pottery dish preserving remnants of a decorated tailpiece with the words “here ends…”
Fragment of a red pottery dish preserving remnants of a decorated tailpiece with the words “here ends…” , Elephantine (Egypt), 1st/2nd century, Ostracon 14135
 
End of the Homeric oracles with the words 'here ends' (ⲧⲉⲗⲟⲥ ⲉⲭⲉⲓ) in a 3rd-century papyrus roll
End of the Homeric oracles with the words 'here ends' (ⲧⲉⲗⲟⲥ ⲉⲭⲉⲓ) in a 3rd-century papyrus roll, Thebes (Egypt), Papyrus 121 (2), detail

It was not only professional scribes who used their rubbish to record drafts. The main market for reused pottery fragments came from schools. Due to their free and almost limitlessly wide availability, ostraca were extremely popular in school education. For more about documents from ancient schools, see this article on children in Ancient Egypt.

Another red-coloured fragment, possibly from an amphora, was first reused to record some names by a more proficient writer, who left the lower part blank. This empty space was later reused again, this time by a child who wrote his name, Paniskos, there. The child also jotted some shaky letters on the back accompanied by his drawing of a human head – maybe of his teacher?

Back of a red pottery sherd reused by a schoolboy, Paniskos, to practice writing
Back of a red pottery sherd reused by a schoolboy, Paniskos, to practice writing. The first line preserves some shaky Greek capital letters and the bottom a doodle of human head by the bored child. Egypt, 4th century, Ostracon 44187

The British Library preserves more than 4000 fragments from ancient vases, cups, jars or bones, bearing various Greek texts from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD. This remarkable trove shows us the economical and sustainable mindset of the ancient world which reused as much rubbish as possible. The reused rubbish is now treasure, providing special glimpses into everyday life that remained rare for many centuries after.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

04 June 2020

Late manuscripts, bad manuscripts?

Add comment

The later their date, the lower their quality. This is how some 19th-century scholars approached Greek manuscripts from after 1200. In the quest for the earliest exemplars, hundreds of late medieval and early modern manuscripts were ignored and marginalised as irrelevant late copies.

Despite the many warnings against this view, it was only in 1934 that an Italian scholar, Giorgio Pasquali (1882-1952), finally put it in writing that 'late manuscripts are not bad manuscripts'. They can be important for a number reasons: for the texts they preserve, for the way they present them or, frankly, just for themselves as books of their age.

Representation of a lizard from a 16th-century copy of a Byzantine Bestiary
Representation of a lizard from a 16th-century copy of a Byzantine Bestiary (France, 2nd quarter of the 16th century–3rd quarter of the 16th century), Burney MS 97, f. 24v (detail)

The exceptional collection of Greek manuscripts in the British Library illustrates the truth of Pasquali’s axiom. The Library holds manuscripts that highlight the role of later Greek manuscripts in the development of printing Greek in the West, and that represent interesting interactions of print and manuscript culture in the 16th century.

Thanks to generous funding we received from the Hellenic Foundation last year, we have been able to digitise seven 18th-century Greek manuscripts which amply demonstate why later manuscripts can be just as fascinating as ancient ones.

Old texts in new manuscripts

The most obvious reason why a later manuscript can be of key importance is if it preserves the only copy of an ancient text. One of the volumes digitised during the project (Add MS 78675) is an example of this.

Illuminated headpiece
Illuminated headpiece from the beginning of an unidentified rhetorical text, (Eastern Mediterranean, 18th century), Add MS 78675, f. 1r

Written in nice 18th-century Greek cursive, the manuscript contains texts designed to help the reader to write in polished Greek language. The first text is a long unpublished manual of rhetoric in two parts. It consists of a general introduction to rhetoric, followed by a long treatise on how to tackle and refute arguments of opponents at court.

We have not been able to identify the author of this text but we found other copies of it in four manuscripts: two in Paris and two in the British Library (Add MS 39622, ff. 100-196r, and Add MS 18190, ff. 90-151v). Interestingly, the manuscripts are all from the 18th century but the text itself looks older. Analysing its wording and content, the closest parallels are all from 5th/6th-century rhetorical treatises. This suggests that it may be an ancient rhetorical tract which resurfaced in the 17th/18th century and was spread only in later Greek manuscripts. The text would certainly deserve a full study and edition, which the recently digitised manuscripts will surely facilitate.

Ancient and modern in one manuscript

Another reason why later manuscripts are exciting is that they show how texts from classical antiquity came down to us through the medieval and early modern eras. Another newly digitised Greek manuscript (Add MS 39619) presents this remarkably well.

Copied in 1712 somewhere in the region of Arta in north-western Greece, it was acquired by the English traveller Robert Curzon (1810-1873) and bequeathed to the Library by his heirs in 1917. See more about Greek manuscripts from Curzon’s collection.

The volume is a handy collection of texts instructing the reader on how to compose letters. It starts with a 4th-century collection of samples to convince, refute, denigrate or praise others. This text is followed by a similar but updated collection, which replaces the ancient samples with new ones taken from the Gospels (f. 37r) or Byzantine history (f. 44r).

Sample of refutation from a collection of Greek rhetorical texts
Sample of a refutation using a Byzantine historical topic, 'that what historians write about the Emperor Leo the Wise is not likely to be true', from a collection of Greek rhetorical texts (Region of Arta, 1712), Add MS 39619, f. 44v (detail)

This long series of Byzantine sample texts is followed by some actual examples to show how the theory is to be put into practice. It is illustrated by a selection of letters from a contemporary ecclesiastic, Anastasius Gordius (1654-1720). Anastasius studied in Western Europe and spoke and wrote in Italian as well as in Latin. He lived as a monk in his village and served as a doctor, philanthropist and teacher of rhetoric, and was canonized as a saint in the 18th century. Interestingly, the manuscript was written in his lifetime and is a clear example of how ancient Greek rhetoric stayed alive, transmitted through classical texts and their Byzantine adaptations to be used by Early Modern Greek intellectuals.

Beginning of a selection of letters from Anasatasius Gordius
Beginning of a selection of letters from Anasatasius Gordius (Region of Arta, 1712), Add MS 39619, f. 101r (detail)

Late manuscripts as books

Another recently digitised manuscript (Add MS 78674) shows why these late copies are interesting just for themselves. Copied in 1738 by an unknown scribe, the volume preserves a long commentary on Aristotle’s logical works written by one of the most important Byzantine philosophers of the early 17th century, Theophilus Corydalleus. The volume exhibits a mixture of Eastern and Western layout and decoration, just as the author himself conflated Western philosophical ideas, learned during his education at the best universities in Italy, with Byzantine theological heritage.

Diagram of philosophical concepts from the Commentary of Theophilus Corydalleus
Diagram of philosophical concepts from the Commentary of Theophilus Corydalleus on Aristotle’s logical works (Eastern Mediterranean, 1738), Add MS 78674, f. 66r (detail)

The coloured diagrams illustrating the philosophical reasoning seem to go back to earlier Byzantine or even ancient examples. The frequently recurring motif of a vase at the foot of some of these diagrams resembles the decoration of the 5th-century Codex Alexandrinus.

Tailpiece at the end of the Acts of the Apostles in the the Codex Alexandrinus
Tailpiece at the end of the Acts of the Apostles from one of the earliest complete Bible manuscripts, the Codex Alexandrinus (Eastern Mediterranean, 5th century), Royal MS 1 D VIII, f. 76r (detail)

Yet at the same time, the neatly designed table of contents, showing chapters with folio numbers at the end of the volume, looks like a modern Western print.

Table of contents from the end of the Commentary of Theophilus Corydalleus
Table of content from the end of the Commentary of Theophilus Corydalleus on Aristotle’s logical works (Eastern Mediterranean, 1738), Add MS 78674, f. 270r (detail)

We are very grateful for the generous support of the Hellenic Foundation which helped us digitise and highlight these later Greek manuscripts. They provide ample illustration that late manuscripts ARE NOT bad manuscripts.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

29 February 2020

10 years of the Medieval Manuscripts Blog

Add comment Comments (3)

This month is an exciting anniversary for us: it has been ten years since the British Library's award-winning Medieval Manuscripts Blog began back in February 2010. It’s a decade that has seen large-scale digitisation, blockbuster exhibitions, exciting acquisitions and fascinating discoveries, and the Blog has been our main way of letting you know about them all. We aim to be inspiring, informative and amusing and above all to share with you the manuscripts love. To celebrate our big anniversary, join us in looking back at some of the Blog's highlights over the years.

10. Launch of The Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project

Medieval manuscript miniature of the Adoration of the Magi
The Adoration of the Magi from an illuminated Psalter, London, 1220s: Lansdowne MS 420, f. 8v

Originally started to promote the Library’s Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, the Blog announced the launch of the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site back in September 2010. Over 2,900 digitised manuscripts later, we’re still blogging to keep you updated about our digitisation projects. One of the most ambitious of these was the Polonsky Foundation Pre-1200 Project, a collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in which we digitised 400 manuscripts, produced two new bilingual websites and published an accompanying book. Announcing the project launch was one of our proudest moments.

9. The voices of ancient women

Papyrus with a drawing of a girl
A girl serving drinks at a table, from an illustrated copy of the Life of Secundus, the Silent Philosopher: Egypt, 6th century, Papyrus 113 (15c)

We may be called the Medieval Manuscripts Blog, but we’re actually the section for Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts. Our blogposts about the Library’s ancient collections are ever-popular, and one of the big hits of 2018 was our post commemorating International Women’s Day, exploring fascinating insights into the lives of women in Roman Egypt from some of our ancient Greek papyri.

8. The first voyage of Codex Amiatinus

The Codex Amiatinus
Codex Amiatinus, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1 (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

The Blog provides us with a great platform for promoting exhibitions such as Royal Manuscripts (2011–12), Magna Carta (2015), Harry Potter (2017–18), and Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (2018-19). We know that our readers loved our series of blogposts accompanying the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. One of the most popular announced that the oldest surviving, complete Latin Bible in the world, Codex Amiatinus, was coming on loan to the British Library. It was the first time that this incredible manuscript, made at the twin monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716, had returned to the British Isles in over 1300 years.

7. Loch Ness Monster found at the British Library

A photoshopped image of a medieval manuscript with a picture of the Loch Ness monster capsizing a boat with a monk looking on
An artist's reconstruction of the Loch Ness Monster (Sarah J Biggs, 2013)

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is known for making some very important discoveries on 1st April each year. These completely serious and factual discoveries are some of the Blog's perennial favourites. For example, who could forget the time we used specialist imaging to uncover the earliest known picture of the Loch Ness Monster?

6. Unicorn cookbook found at the British Library

A photoshopped image of a medieval manuscript with a picture of a man cooking a unicorn on a grill
Detail of a unicorn on the grill in the Unicorn Cookbook

By complete coincidence, 1st April was also the date on which we made another of our very exciting discoveries: the long-lost unicorn cookbook. Every year this blogpost receives thousands of page-views from people wanting to learn how medieval cooks prepared this rare delicacy.

5. Medieval Manuscripts at the UK Blog Awards

A photo of Julian and Sarah at the Blog Awards
Julian and Sarah triumphant at the UK Blog Awards

One special highlight was when we were named Arts and Culture Blog of the Year in the inaugural UK Blog Awards in 2014. It was a tremendous honour and we were thrilled to bits!

4. White gloves or not white gloves

A photo of a hand wearing white gloves

We also use the Blog to share useful information about accessing and caring for our collections. One of our most popular blogposts explains our policy of not wearing gloves to handle manuscripts. There is a widespread view, stemming from films and television, that white gloves should be worn for handling old books. But recent scientific advice suggests that wearing gloves can do more harm than good.

3. Hwæt! Beowulf online

The opening words of the Beowulf manuscript
The opening words of Beowulf, beginning "Hwæt" ("Listen!"): London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r

On the Blog we provide regular updates on which manuscripts are available to view online. It’s especially exciting when our favourites go online, and over the years we have announced the digitisation of star manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and Old English Hexateuch, Christine de Pizan’s Book of the Queen, the Luttrell Psalter and more. But the announcement that received the greatest attention was the 2013 digitisation of the Beowulf manuscript, the most famous poem in the Old English language.

2. St Cuthbert Gospel saved for the nation

The front cover of the Cuthbert gospel, featuring tooled leather with interlace and plant designs
The front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel, Wearmouth-Jarrow, late 7th century: Add MS 89000

The Blog is also where we announce new acquisitions. The most thrilling of these was when we acquired the St Cuthbert Gospel following the most successful fundraising campaign in the Library's history. Created in the early 8th century in the North-East of England and placed in St Cuthbert's coffin in Durham Cathedral, this is the earliest intact European book. Since 2010 we’ve also welcomed into the collection treasures such as the Mostyn Psalter-Hours, the Southwark Hours, the Percy Hours and a leaf from an Anglo-Saxon benedictional.

1. Knight v Snail

Medieval manuscript depiction of a knight fighting a snail
Knight v Snail in the Gorleston Psalter, England (Suffolk), 1310-1324: Add MS 49622, f. 193v

Our number one is our most viewed blogpost of all time: the phenomenally popular Knight v Snail. In 2013, a trip to the manuscripts store room to look at some medieval genealogical rolls resulted in a blogpost about the ultimate adversaries of the medieval margins. Why do knights fight snails in medieval manuscripts? No one knows for sure but, as our viewers have demonstrated, it certainly makes for great entertainment.

There are so many blogposts we haven't been able to mention here — Lolcats of the Middle Ages, anyone? Crisp as a poppadom, Shot through the heart and you're to blame, A medieval rainbow, New regulations for consulting manuscripts, Help us decipher this inscription — suffice to say, this is our 1,299th blogpost, and in the last 10 years the Blog has attracted over 5.25 million views from almost 200 countries ... more than enough to pass a rainy day.

Thank you so much to our talented writers and loyal readers — you’re all brilliant. Editing the blog is such a wonderful experience and we're incredibly grateful to everyone who has made it possible. Here’s to the next ten years!

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

12 December 2019

Troy story

Add comment

For over 3000 years, people have told legends of a long and bloody war between the Greeks and the Trojans, sparked by the abduction of the beautiful Queen Helen of Sparta by Paris, the Trojan prince. In response, a mighty force of Greek heroes laid siege to the city of Troy for ten years. The siege only ended when the Greeks built a giant wooden horse and left it outside the city gates as an offering. The Trojans, not realising that it was a trick, brought the horse into the city. A band of Greek soldiers were hiding inside the horse, and when night fell they crept out. They opened the gates to the rest of the Greek army, who massacred the population and destroyed the city.

The British Library has loaned seven ancient and medieval manuscripts to the British Museum’s current exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎). We’re going to be exploring how these manuscripts reveal the evolution of the tale of Troy over the centuries, starting with the Greek tradition today and following with a second blog post about the Latin tradition.

Men drag a giant horse statue into a walled city
The Trojan Horse: Italy, 1480s, Kings MS 24, f. 73v

However cruel and bloody it may sound today, the siege of Troy was only a rather average-sized case amongst the many brutal battles of classical antiquity. There were several more devastating carnages recorded, for example during the long wars between Rome and the North African Carthage, or between Rome and King Pyrrhus’ forces from the Greek city of Epirus.

What then distinguishes Troy and the Trojan war from other even more horrific and disastrous wars of antiquity? The question was answered by none other than Alexander the Great, another conqueror of the 4th century BC. Upon reaching the tomb of Achilles, one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War, Alexander cried out how lucky Achilles was to have his deeds and memory preserved by the great poet Homer.

A print of a stone sculpture of the head and shoulders of an elderly man with a thick, curly beard and hair
Engraving of a bust of Homer found at Baiae in 1780: Burney MS 86, f. v verso

The key to the long-standing fame of siege of Troy is the fact that it became the subject of two of the most important and masterful Greek epic poems of Classical Antiquity: the Iliad and the Odyssey. The two poems, presumably pieced together from earlier oral traditions in the 8th century BC and attributed to the blind, prophet-like poet Homer, are iconic pieces of ancient Greek literature.

Read and admired by generations of scholars, poets and artists, the two epic poems were part of the Greek school curriculum all over the Mediterranean. Children and young adults, together with their teachers and instructors, spent hours reading, understanding and memorising Homer’s verses. No wonder that the poems come down to us in hundreds of various formats – from cheap copies for schools to deluxe papyri designed for scholarly use or showing off.

A wooden board inscribed with Greek writing
Eight lines from Homer’s Iliad written on a wooden tablet by a teacher: Egypt, 3rd century AD, Add MS 33293

A splendid example of the showy format of deluxe papyri is Papyrus 732. This 1st-century AD copy from Book 13 of the Iliad is written with elegant Greek uncials for wealthy patron, probably a scholar who had even put one annotation to the column on the left.

A fragmentary piece of parchment with columns of Greek writing in a frame
Book 13 of the Iliad: 1st century AD, Papyrus 732 (3)

Papyrus 271 is even more lavishly written, containing portions of the Odyssey from the 1st century AD. It shows the end of Book 3 of the poem with a nice endpiece (colophon) on the right. The annotations in the margins are even more interesting. These little notes explaining the grammar or the content of the ancient text are extracts from ancient commentators of the Homeric epics. They preserve fragments from scholarly works that do not survive anymore and represent centuries of scholarship on Homer.

A fragmentary piece of parchment with columns of Greek writing in a frame
Book 3 of the Odyssey: 1st century AD, Papyrus 271 (2)

These scattered notes were later assembled into one almost continuous commentary on Homer’s texts that often accompanied both the Iliad and the Odyssey in later manuscripts. An excellent example of this textual tradition, usually called the school-commentaries (scholia) on Homer, is the Townley Homer.

This manuscript, known after its previous owner, Charles Townley (1737-1805), was probably written in 1059 and contains the text of the Iliad with an extensive array of marginal scholia. An elaborate system of red signs connect the main text of the poem to the lengthier notes on the margins. Between the widely spaced lines of Homer’s text there are several interlinear notes (glosses) explaining difficult words or archaic grammatical features of the text for the reader. All this was designed for a fuller and deeper understanding of the poems. This remarkable manuscript preserves centuries of Homeric scholarship in the form of a handy manual that ensured the transmission of not only Homer and the memory of Troy but also a whole range of other texts, grammars, scientific works, fables, literary and metrical works for the following centuries.

Manuscript page in Greek, with lots of notes in the margins and between the lines of text
School-commentaries (scholia) on Homer, the 'Townley Homer': Eastern Mediterranean, probably 1059, Burney Ms 86, f. 240v

Homer’s Greek epics also inspired Latin writers who reimagined the story of Troy for new audiences and new purposes. Read part two of this blogpost to learn how the Trojans founded Europe, and check out the British Museum’s exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎) where you can see most of these manuscripts on display.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

14 November 2019

Classics lost and found

Add comment

Works written by ancient Greek and Roman authors have made a major impact on the world’s culture and society. They profoundly shaped medieval thought, as you can discover in Cillian O’Hogan’s article The Classical Past on the Polonsky England and France 700-1200 project website. Compared to their afterlife and significance, however, the number of classical writings that have actually survived is surprisingly low. Why were some works lost while others survived, and where can you find them?

A decorated initial in a medieval manuscript, featuring a bird-human hybrid creature.
Beginning of the book on the nature of the birds from Pliny’s Natural History: England, 2nd half of 12th century, Arundel MS 98, f. 85v

A large number of classical texts do not survive at all. For example, we have only about a third of the works of Aristotle. His famous treatise on laughter and comedy – desperately sought in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – has not come down to us. Some highly acclaimed pieces of ancient Greek lyrical poetry, such as Sappho’s poems, have also disappeared.

Many ancient plays, both in Greek and Latin, are only known by name. Various works of epic poetry, such as Cicero’s famous poem on his own historical significance, humbly titled On my own consulship, do not survive. Nor is there any trace of a substantial proportion of scientific and historical writings by ancient Greek and Roman authors. Sometimes we have hints of works only, such as this parchment book tag which used to serve as a 'title page' to a scroll containing Sophron’s Comedies on Women from the 5th century BC, now lost.

A piece of ancient papyrus bearing Greek writing
A book tag (syllibos) with the title of a lost papyrus scroll said to have contained Sophron’s Comedies on Women: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 1-2nd century, Papyrus 801

Traditionally, barbarian invasions and Christian monks have been blamed for intentionally destroying works of the classical past. The image of burning books and libraries is often evoked in scholarship, fiction and films alike. While this may have occasionally occurred, the biggest deciding factor for the survival or disappearance of classical texts is actually likely to be their use in medieval school education.

The reason for this is that works that made it onto school curricula tended to be copied more, so medieval scribes preserved them in large numbers. Texts that proved to be too difficult or unsuitable for use in schools were more prone to being lost. For example, of the 142 books of Livy’s exceptionally long work, The History of Rome from its Foundation, from the 1st century BC, only 35 books have survived intact, with the rest preserved only in extracts abridged for school use.

An ancient wooden tablet bearing a Greek inscription
An example of a classical text surviving through use in school - eight lines from Homer’s Iliad written on a wooden tablet by a teacher: Egypt, 3rd century, Add MS 33293

School curricula also explain why ancient grammatical literature was transmitted in surprising quantities across medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, including educational material for the study not only of Latin but also of ancient Greek. Popular texts, such as Priscian’s 5th-century Institutes of Latin Grammar, survive in large numbers, sometimes annotated with glosses or notes added in classrooms, as in this example from 11th-century France.

A medieval manuscript page containing lots of glosses and beginning with a decorated initial C.
A heavily annotated title page from an copy of a grammatical textbook by Priscian, which was widely used in medieval schools: France, 11th century, Harley MS 2763, f. 1r

Although schools filtered the classical tradition rather heavily, omitting a number of texts that we would now be eager to read, the ancient schoolmasters had a surprisingly broad literary grasp. We have works on ancient mythology such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and encyclopaedic works such as Pliny’s Natural History. The works of Homer in the Eastern Mediterranean and Virgil, Cicero, Horace and Ovid in the West all survived thanks to their inclusion in late antique and medieval secondary education.

This key role of schools in the transmission of the classical past sheds a special light on other surviving texts, too. Ancient Roman plays, for example, have come down to us not as scripts for theatrical performances but rather as school manuals. They were used to teach students how to find the right words, tone and style to use in various situations, from speeches at courts to creative writing, as in this copy of the plays by the 2nd-century BC playwright, Terence.

A medieval manuscript page
An annotated school copy of comedies by Terence: Germany, 11th century, Harley MS 2750,  f. 65r

But besides medieval manuscripts, there is another source which reveals additional clues about classical texts: the papyri preserved in the sand of Egypt. The large number of papyrus fragments excavated at various sites in Egypt have already filled many of the gaps in our knowledge of the Classics. They have supplied us with lost works by Aristotle (The Constitution of Athens), almost complete comedies (such as The Hated Man by the 4th-century BC Menander), and unique fragments from Sappho, alongside remarkable survivals of ancient science. Many of these amazing finds are in the British Library’s collections and are presented in articles on our Greek Manuscripts website.

A damaged fragment of ancient papyrus with Greek writing on.
Papyrus fragment showing the last lines and close (colophon) of Menander’s comedy, The Hated Man: Egypt, Oxyrhynchus, 4th century, Papyrus 3077

Here, you will find more on the Aristotle papyrus, a remarkable medical fragment and some carbonised scrolls from the destroyed city of Herculaneum.

Whether preserved in medieval libraries or in archaeological sites, the works of the classical past continue to inspire us. As work on the British Library’s collection of ancient texts continues worldwide, we hope that there are many more discoveries to come.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project                                           

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

29 May 2019

Crocodiles rock (never smile at a manuscript)

Add comment

Regular readers of our Blog may have noticed that animals are one of our favourite subjects, especially the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the Bestiary. Some of these creatures, like the unicorn or bonnacon, are no longer to be seen; but one of the strangest beasts is still thriving (though please don’t get too close) — the crocodile. The British Library's bestiaries contain a huge variety of images of these creatures, by medieval artists who were compelled to use their imagination  — after all, one rarely encountered a crocodile when fishing for eels in the Essex mud-flats in the 13th century!

A fairly realistic depiction of a crocodile is found in this bestiary, which was in the library of Rochester Priory in the 14th century and may have been made there. This manuscript, as well as two others described in this blogpost (Royal MS 12 C XIX and Harley MS 3244), is currently on display in the exhibition Book of Beasts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f024r copy

A crocodile in the ‘Rochester Bestiary’, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 24r

The crocodile is often accompanied by its enemy, a snake-like beast from the Nile, known as the hydrus. The text describes how, when a crocodile is asleep with its mouth open, the hydrus rolls in the mud to become slippery; it slithers into the crocodile’s mouth before being swallowed. It then begins to eat its way out, killing the crocodile in the process. In the bestiary tradition, animal behaviours are seen as moral allegories; in this case the crocodile’s mouth represents the mouth of Hell, while the hydrus is Christ, who enters through the gate of Hell to redeem lost souls. In this manuscript there are two drawings of crocodiles, one with the hydrus and the other eating fish.

Stowe_ms_1067_f002v

Stowe_ms_1067_f003r

A beaver with a man blowing a horn, a crocodile swallowing a hydrus, a crocodile eating fish, and a winged hyena (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Stowe MS 1067, ff. 2v–3r

Guillaume le Clerc, a Norman cleric and early compiler of the bestiary, described crocodiles as being shaped ‘somewhat like an ox’. The artist of one bestiary seems to have followed this trend, as their crocodile has long legs and looks more like a horse.

Sloane 3544

Bears and a crocodile (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 3544, f. 10v

Later in the same volume, a different artist drew a more plausible shape, although this crocodile's ears are rather dog-like.

Croc

Another crocodile in Sloane MS 3544, f. 43r

All the early writers who described crocodiles, from Pliny to Isidore to Mandeville, were agreed that they are ferocious beasts. Some alluded to their taste for humans, while Mandeville and Bartholomaeus Anglicus mentioned the tears that they cried before swallowing their hapless prey. In this image, a crocodile (labelled 'serpens') is shown swallowing a man who is stabbing him, while a hydra emerges from a hole it has bitten in his side.

Harley_ms_3244_f043r

A crocodile swallowing a man (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3244, f. 43r 

For pure invention, the prize goes to these two artists, whose creatures resemble dinosaurs or prehistoric insects.

Royal_ms_12_c_xix_f012v

A crocodile swallowing a hydrus (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 12v

K039085

A crocodile with a knotted tail (England, early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 62v. This manuscript was digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Bestiaries are not the only manuscripts to contain images of crocodiles. Here are two in the margins of Psalters, one made in Constantinople and the other in England.

Add_ms_40731_f092r
A crocodile in the Bristol Psalter (Constantinople, 11th century): Add MS 40731, f. 92r

Royal_ms_2_b_vii_f102v

A crocodile in the Queen Mary Psalter (England, between 1310 and 1320): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 102v

So why blog about crocodiles? They are certainly not cuddly creatures like the dogs, cats, elephants, hedgehogs, beavers or owls that we've blogged about before. The idea came to me while I was writing another blogpost on the works of Homer. What do crocodiles have to do with Homer, one might ask? The missing link is the remarkable survival of two Egyptian papyri containing his writings, known as the ‘Harris Homer’, one in roll-form and one in book-form (Papyrus 107 and Papyrus 126).

Papyrus_107_f001r

The Harris Homer (Egypt, 1st–2nd century): Papyrus 107, f. 1r

The papyrus roll was found in ‘the crocodile pit’ at Ma’abdey, near Monfalat, in Egypt, on 9 December 1849, before being acquired by Mr A. C. Harris. This story has been investigated by Brent Nongbri in his article ‘The Crocodile pit of Maabdeh, Florence Nightingale, and the British Museum's acquisition of the Harris Homers’, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, 54 (2017), 207–17. Apparently the pit was a cave on the banks of the Nile containing thousands of crocodile and human mummies, much visited by 19th-century travellers who wished to experience the thrill of being attacked by bats and encountering the spirits of dead crocodiles.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

25 April 2019

Writing the story of writing: a new exhibition

Add comment

On 26 April a new landmark exhibition opens at the British Library. Its theme is broad but it is also personal and intimate: Writing: Making Your Mark traces the incredible story of how we write.

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing an illustration of the Evangelist St Luke sitting and writing at a desk.

Writing on a page: a portrait of St Luke the Evangelist from a 12th-century Byzantine gospel-book: Add MS 5112/1

Jotting notes, sending texts, typing emails — all are part of our daily lives. Writing surrounds us. It lets us communicate with people we don’t see and may never meet. It allows our great-grandparents to talk to us from the past through their handwritten letters and postcards. Through it, we can leave messages to future generations which they may or may not read. We take all this for granted without necessarily being aware that, with every single letter we put down, we are part of the 5000-year story of writing.

The reverse of a papyrus, showing a text written in hieroglyphs.

Hieroglyphs from the back of a 2nd or 3rd-century Greek papyrus: Papyrus 2

Writing: Making your Mark is an opportunity to think about this amazing human invention and the incredible journey made by writing worldwide in the last 5 millennia. From ancient cuneiform tablets, carved hieroglyphs, long papyrus scrolls and gold-blazed parchment leaves to printed and typewritten pages or computer screens, we reflect on how writing has changed they ways we think, feel and see the world.

A figure of a sphinx made from sandstone, with writing inscribed on the base.

One of the oldest attestations of an alphabetic system survives on the base of this sphinx, with the ancestors of our letter 'M' (as water on the right) and 'a' (as the ox-head) next to it (Sinai, 1800 BCE): British Museum EA 41748 (courtesy of the British Museum)

Writing: Making Your Mark is a remarkable opportunity to display some of our ancient and medieval treasures in a new light and in a global context, surrounded by examples from other periods and cultures.

A 2nd-century wax tablet, inscribed with lines of Greek text.

A Greek wax tablet with a child’s homework, written in Egypt in the 2nd century AD: Add MS 34186(1)

A 2,000-year old Greek homework-book illustrates the humble beginnings of a career in writing. A prosaic document, recording the sale of only a twelfth part of a land and house in Ravenna, is the longest intact papyrus in the British Library. Its script, written at times rather carelessly by a notary called John, shows letter-forms developed by the Roman imperial administration, which mark the beginnings of our lower-case letters and are direct predecessors of the characteristic insular script of early medieval England.

A detail from a papyrus, showing writing in Latin.

Detail from the Ravenna Papyrus, AD 572, with the scribe recording his name ('scribsi ego Johannis') using the 'lower-case' letters of the New Roman cursive: Add MS 5412

One of the earliest examples of the new script developed in the court of Charlemagne in the late 8th century shows us the roots of the New Roman typeface, that went on to the printed page in the early 16th century and then on to our screens as Times New Roman.

A page from a medieval manuscript, showing the text of a theological treatise written in Latin.

An example of Carolingian minuscule from a manuscript of Theodulf of Orléans's De Spiritu Sancto, made between 809 and 816: Harley MS 3024, f. 33r

The exhibition concludes by looking at the future of writing, asking how humankind will make its mark in the coming years. Come and join us on this amazing journey.

Writing: Making Your Mark will be open at the British Library from 26 April to 27 August 2019.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval